One boy's mission proves what can be achieved

20th November 1998 at 00:00
MARK MCMANUS, a second-year pupil at Holy Rood High School, is making good progress in all his subjects. He gets on well with teachers and other pupils who enjoy his friendly chat and his slightly mischievous sense of humour. He loves to read and to listen to Classic FM, but the highlight of his year is his holiday in Spain, where he particularly enjoys the swimming pool.

Mark has cerebral palsy and is Holy Rood's first wheelchair-bound pupil. He and his parents encountered some establishment resistance to their hopes for a normal education. While the "experts" wrung their hands and cautioned them about the big, bad world of the mainstream secondary school, Mark and his family maintained their resolve. Having read about Edinburgh's policy of integration, they set out to ensure that the education authority would make the rhetoric a reality.

Mark's first experience of mainstream education was at St Mark'sprimary school. Headteacher Patricia Barclay and her staff gave him as complete a school experience as possible. He signed up for school camp, where other pupils readily accepted that his mother was a fellow camper on hand to help.

At Holy Rood, Mark sees himself as a trail-blazer for other disabled children. With amazing maturity, he explains that he sees real purpose in his disability. He sees it as his God-given destiny to demonstrate what can be achieved by a disabled young person and to be a role model for those who will follow him. His ambition to work in a caring profession in the developing world exemplifies his determination to challenge the limits of his condition.

When I spoke to Mark recently about his progress in the school, he quickly dispensed with my rather predictable concerns about lifts, ramps, etc and asked, "Do you know about cerebral palsy, Mr Sweeney?" He then proceeded to explain in very precise terms the nature of his disability. Mark McManus is a young man with a mission to educate the people around him - including his headteacher.

The reaction of teaching staff to Mark's presence has been very positive. He thinks that they may even be slightly over-solicitous about his welfare. I felt a twinge of guilty recognition as he explained that teachers often speak to him more loudly than to the rest of the class. "They think I'm deaf," he says, creasing with laughter, "but you can't expect people to get used to me overnight."

Holy Rood pupils have welcomed Mark as a member of their class. They are a bit puzzled about why he cannot cope with certain subjects, and they miss him when he is not around. However, Mark revealed that he is very occasionally subjected to thoughtless comments about his condition. "I don't condemn people for that," he says wearily, "they just need to be educated about disability."

Litter annoys him intensely, because, as he points out, he gets a closer view of it than anyone else. It also upsets him to see some young people squandering the opportunities for which he and his family have had to struggle so hard.

Mark's whole attitude, his approach to life and even his vocabulary reinforce his claim to be treated normally. As he left my office to meet his dad, I looked out at the pouring rain and, slipping into the over-protective mode which he is so keen to resist, I fussily reached for his jacket and said, "You'll get soaked, Mark" "It's all right," he replied with a knowing chuckle. "I'll just dash to the car."

Mark is living proof that integration can be made to work if it is properly resourced and if everyone involved, child, parents, school and education authority, is equally committed to its success. When asked recently if the school wanted to apply for accreditation with "Investors in People", I could well have responded that we already have a Quality Mark.

Pat Sweeney is headteacher of Holy Rood High, Edinburgh

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